Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco

Unforgettable charactersQuick: can you tell me who Emperor Norton was?

Time’s up. Emperor Norton was just one of a long line of colorful characters who have helped give San Francisco its distinctive reputation as . . . well, more than a little wacky. He proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859 and ruled his vast domain from the streets of San Francisco for two decades. In her own time, shortly before the Emperor had passed from the scene, a homeless woman, Jenny Bonnet, joined him in the pantheon of the city’s greatest creations. Bonnet was a favorite subject of sensational news coverage for wearing men’s clothing, collecting live frogs for sale in sacks to restaurants, riding (someone else’s) high-wheeled bicycle all over town, and getting herself into all manner of scrapes.


Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue brings the incomparable Bonnet back to life in Frog Music, her fact-based novel set in 1876 in the City by the Bay. Bonnet’s story, as related in Frog Music, is a murder mystery told in the voice of Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant like Bonnet, a dancehall-girl celebrated for her bawdy performances and a highly sought-after prostitute. The two women meet one day as Beunon is crossing the street and Bonnet runs into her with her high-wheeler. Their lives quickly become entangled with each other in the weeks that follow the collision, with the eccentric Bonnet showing up without warning from time to time and pestering Beunon with perplexing and inconvenient questions that eventually upend her life.

The cast of characters, nearly all of them real people, includes Beunon’s “macs” — a good-for-nothing “fancy man” who lives on her earnings, and a younger man who fawns on him — and others in the French immigrant community in polyglot San Francisco. In the background are a notorious Prussian madam, a police detective, a cruel “doctress” who runs a dormitory for unwanted children, and an albino reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Except for the reporter, these are all historical figures.

But the greatest character of all is the city of San Francisco itself in all its chaotic energy less than three decades after the Gold Rush. As Bonnet and Beunon make their way across town and back, the local color of the famously free-wheeling town leaps from the page. The story is set during a (true-to-life) smallpox epidemic and a simultaneous heat wave so uncharacteristic of that foggy seaside city. (Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”) The extreme temperatures, and the fear set off by the epidemic, force tempers to a boil, triggering a racist anti-Chinese riot as well as many violent private tragedies — and the murder that is the centerpiece of this fascinating story.

Frog Music tells a lively tale of suspense. It’s peopled with unforgettable characters, all the more vivid for having actually lived. Emma Donoghue does San Francisco proud.

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